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keep on rockin’ in the free world: a desert trip diary

November 25, 2016

dt6It’s been well over a month since I got home from Desert Trip. But it took me several days to float back down to earth and resume some cognitive function that wasn’t just endless loops of song fragments. And then the election happened and the whole world got flipped on its head. But now it’s Thanksgiving weekend and while 2016 has, for the most part, been a relentlessly bad year, Desert Trip was a high point of all my years and an experience I am truly thankful for.

My sister Madi and I attended the second of the two weekends, which turned out to be ideal. I spent the entire first weekend slavishly following along with all social media coverage of the event. (Back in post-Desert Trip reality I often have to remind myself that this was the reason I started following Rob Lowe on Instagram…) Not being there the first weekend only built up my excitement, whereas going the first weekend and being back at home for the second, knowing what I was missing, might have killed me. Ignorance truly is bliss.

Day 1 – October 14

dt2Our Desert Trip experience started at the shuttle pick-up location in Rancho Mirage. We got there early, ready to board the first shuttle headed for Indio and wring every moment out of the weekend. We were definitely the youngest people at our shuttle stop (this would not be the case when we got to the festival) but we had our first “you’re seeing your grandparents music!” conversation with a sweet older couple from upstate New York. The shuttles arrived ahead of schedule, loading in was easy and efficient, and when we got onboard the carefully curated pre-Desert Trip festival playlist prompted several enthusiastic singalongs.

Arriving at the festival grounds we took the first of our daily treks from the shuttle stop to the gates, a slog we lovingly referred to as “The Death March.” It was a long, hot, dusty, walk for us General Admission folks. Pedicabs were lined up to help cart people to the gates but we were carefully pocketing our cash in order to blow it all in a premeditated merch buying frenzy.

We had “VIP” General Admission tickets, which got you no closer to the stage than regular General Admission, but did feed you in the event’s all-you-can-eat-drink-and-booze Culinary Experience. Full disclosure: I panic bought these VIP passes because the day tickets were released, after waiting for hours in the online queue, regular General Admission had sold out and I was too scared to navigate off the main page to seek out reserved seating or standing seats because I’d seen tweets about the site kicking people out so I just bought the VIP GA. In the end – it worked out great.

Culinary Experience was a cool addition – lots of vendors to sample, a swanky separate area from the general mass of humanity and most importantly we were greeted post-Death March with cold towels and access to air conditioning. And let me tell you, in the 90+ degree midday desert heat I would have left my husband for that cold towel.

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Life in Culinary Experience wasn’t too rough…

After casing the Culinary Experience scene we ventured out to do some exploring of the general grounds. It was then that we made the fateful decision to buy our merch. Now I will say this festival was exceptionally well run. The shuttle system was honestly one of man’s greatest achievements, and there were air traffic type controllers directing traffic through the restrooms which made for some of the shortest ladies’ lines I’ve ever stood in, but despite all the great efficiencies elsewhere the merch tent was nestled deep in one of Dante’s inner circles of hell.

 

For some unknown reason, there was only ONE full merch tent. There were a few smaller merch areas beyond general admission, accessible only to people with reserved seating and only carrying a fraction of the inventory available in the large tent. So here we are, essentially one shop for 75,000 people. We took a deep breath and stepped into one of the dozen-plus lines extending out from the tent under the relentless southern California sun, eager to get our merch purchased before inventory inevitably started to run low later in the weekend. We stood in that sweatfest of a line for nearly 2 hours. At one point, an older man waiting near us actually passed out and was taken away by medics. After this they started handing out water bottles but the line continued to move at the pace of a slowly melting and particularly unmotivated snail. At first you think the pace is due to the people in the front of the line taking forever to decide but it was actually just a horrifically inefficient system. Anyhow, we made it out of there eventually with merch in hand, blood pressure elevated, water bottles empty, and significantly less goodwill towards humanity in general.

Now onto the music. Actual music critics and actual journalistic outlets have covered the music in detail so I will continue to offer my diary-style impressions of the experience.

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Bob Dylan was first, and after all the hype about him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature the day before, I knew that he wouldn’t say a word about it, or anything else, to the crowd. He proved me right on this but his set included many more of his classics than usual and he sounded better than I’ve heard him in years. The crowd on night one felt like they were overwhelmingly there for the Stones though and there was a lot of chatter around us in the General Admission standing area. At one point we ended up behind three of what I can only assume are South America’s answer to American Frat Bros. They seemed generally indifferent toward Dylan’s set until the encore when he launched into “Like a Rolling Stone” and they came alive like someone had flipped a switch – jumping, howling, singing. It was a lot to be standing right behind but they were so gleeful in their delivery that I just rode the wave with them. But as soon as that song was over and “Why Try to Change Me Now” started they turned to each other and began speaking loudly and actually singing Rolling Stones songs – during Dylan’s set! So Madi taught them some choice English phrases and we moved along to a chiller area of the crowd for the second show.

I’ve seen the Rolling Stones once before, three years ago in Chicago, and they blew my mind. My sister hadn’t seen them before and I was giddy at the prospect of sharing her first Stones show with her. Mick burst onto the stage at Desert Trip and had the audience in the palm of his hand for the rest of the night. He also had some kind words to share about Dylan’s award. Though my favorite commentary was when Keith Richards was on the mic for a few songs and gave his own congratulations to Dylan for “winning the Nobel Peace Prize!” Ah, Keef – never change. The highlight of the Stones set for me was “Gimme Shelter.” Their powerhouse backing vocalist Lisa Fischer was unable to attend the Desert Trip shows but they were able to fill her shoes spectacularly with Sasha Allen. Howling out Merry Clayton’s famous refrain as the desert wind whipped around her I felt like I was watching something from another world. She was clearly having a blast up there and her energy was infectious. Holding your own on a stage with Mick Jagger is no easy task but she was phenomenal. The Stones set ended in an appropriately extravagant fireworks display that left electricity pulsating through the crowd.

Day 2 – October 15

dt4Day 2 was the surprise highlight of the whole weekend. On paper, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in one night should be pretty much impossible to top in my musical universe but Neil Young and Paul McCartney delivered an evening of pure magic. During the day we took took in the Photography Experience – 3,500 square feet of some of the coolest rock photos ever taken. I left with a resolute desire to start saving my pennies so that I can one day hang some true-blue rock art in my home.

Neil Young began his show by playing an acoustic set of classics including “After the Gold Rush,” “Heart of Gold,” “Long May You Run,” and “Old Man.” Almost from the first chord I was an emotional mess. There was something about standing there, on a field with 75,000 people, in the dusky desert sunset, listening to a legend like Young plaintively sing songs he’d written about the passage of time as a much younger man. It was beautiful.

Then Promise of the Real came out to join him and my jaw was on the floor for the rest of the show. This band absolutely shreds. Fronted by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, they infused a brand new vitality into Young’s catalog. But it wasn’t all just hard rockin’ in the free world. About midway through the show Neil played “Harvest Moon” as a picture perfect supermooon was rising over the stage behind him. The crowd unfailingly and enthusiastically erupted in cheers every time the word “moon” was uttered. But then partway through the song we heard cheering near us that wasn’t inspired by mention of our lunar satellite – we turned around to see a man on one knee, proposing to his girlfriend during the song. A circle formed around them and everyone within viewing distance started clapping and cheering. It was a really lovely moment and as you can guess, it made me cry. Again.

And then I cried again when he played “Like a Hurricane” as the desert winds picked up and swirled around me. Neil and Nature just seem to have a thing going on. And I didn’t cry, but I cheered, when he took to the front of the stage on “Mick’s microphone” to “break the law!” by hurling packets of organic seeds into the audience. Instructing the lucky recipients to go home and plant them and then call the police to report themselves for breaking California’s ridiculous law against the transfer of organic seeds across county lines. How lucky we are to have a Neil Young in this world.

The closing song of his show was, appropriately, “Rockin’ in the Free World.” I truly would have stood there for another two and a half hours if they wanted to keep playing so realizing it was the last song was bittersweet, but luckily the guys stretched it out as long as possible. There had to be no less than four full fake-out endings, with applause drowned out by the band jumping back into the title refrain. I felt like a yo-yo in their hands and my sister and I were both laughing with delight at their resolute resistance to letting their night end.

Next up was Paul McCartney, the first artist of the weekend that I hadn’t yet seen live. Coming off the glow of Neil Young’s transcendent performance I wasn’t sure what to expect. But within the first few bars of “Hard Day’s Night” I was fully swept up and spellbound for the duration of his entire 38-song set. (Noise curfew ordinances don’t apply to Sir Paul, thankfully.) There’s so many moments I could call out from his performance – his tender tributes to his mates John and George, and the recently passed George Martin. His performance of “Maybe I’m Amazed” (which was my wedding song) dedicated to his daughters in the audience – Stella and Mary. The sweet simple beauty of his acoustic “Blackbird.” Bringing out Neil Young and watching him shred the solo of “Day in the Life” so hard that he handed his guitar tech an almost entirely stringless instrument at the end of it. The lights coming up on the audience as 75,000 strangers rapturously sang along to the “Hey Jude” refrain with one of the only two Beatles left on the planet. Oh, and he brought Rhianna out to perform their recent hit “FourFiveSeconds” which was fantastic but the pop superstar’s appearance was really only a footnote to a truly enchanted evening. I also cried a bunch during his set, but you would have too.

Despite Paul’s performance running well past midnight, and despite having been on our feet for the better part of 10 hours, Madi and I couldn’t fall asleep after the second night. We were vibrating with energy, trying to process what we’d just been a part of. It was a night I will never forget.

Day 3 – October 16

dt1Day 3 affirmed to us why most festivals are three days long. Our routine had become pretty well established but the sun, the standing, and the ever-present dust were starting to take their toll on us. (Shout out to all the people twice our age who were still killing it…) Before the final set of shows that evening we displayed some kind of festival-induced Stockholm Syndrome by voluntarily returning to the purgatory of the merch tent. We stood in line again, this time for about an hour, to buy a Paul McCartney t-shirt that had caught our eyes on our first pass through the tent but since the previous night’s life-affirming performance had become an absolute essential purchase. So we pounded a few free drinks in Culinary Experience and dove back in. This attempt was far better than the Day 1 nightmare though, the sun was starting to drop in the sky, instead of relentlessly forcing all the moisture from our bodies, and we made friends with two women in line behind us who ended up sharing their room temperature vodka + juice in a water bottle and swapping stories about seeing our favorite bands. (One of them had seen The Rolling Stones 16 times!) When we got to the front of the line, slightly buzzed and running up against the first chords of The Who taking the stage, the only size they had left in our coveted shirt was XXL (which we are not), without hesitation we purchased two of them. One does not endure the merch line twice in order to just give up at the first obstacle.

With our tent-sized shirts in hand we ran into General Admission for The Who. For whatever reason I’ve never personally emotionally connected with The Who, so this was my least favorite performance of the weekend. As Madi observed, their set (which, notably, was exactly the same as the first weekend, and their recent tours) felt the most like “Oldchella” – that is to say, the most like a band of old rockers running skillfully through their greatest hits. That said, it was still an absolutely killer performance – Daltrey’s voice rang out over the desert night and Townshend delivered his iconic windmill arm (enough to actually cut his forehead with the mic, long live rock and roll). It was easy enough to picture them in a different time, scandalizing Monterey Pop by destroying everything in sight. Plus, “Baba O’Reilly” was basically built for a Desert Trip-sized delivery and it rocked.

The closer for a weekend of headliners was Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. I’d seen him on The Wall Live tour several years ago and was incredibly moved by the performance. So I knew there was a reason Goldenvoice had picked him to close it all out. The crowd on Sunday night was a sea of Pink Floyd shirts and the wafting marijuana increased several fold after The Who’s final bow. Waters’ set started with the trippy, spacey Floyd stuff. The visuals on the towering screens were awesome and I was initially pretty envious of everyone who had thought to toke up before the show. But then he veered into Wall territory and suddenly Desert Trip’s incredible sound system was overtaken by helicopters, machine guns, dogs barking, and sirens. My first thought was pity for everyone who had been, until that moment, sweetly floating in the jam band ether before being abruptly thrust into the quadrophonic sensory assault of Waters’ dystopian military nightmare.

Much has been made of Waters’ outspoken anti-Trump performance so I won’t rehash it here other than to say it was awesome at the time and pretty hard to think back on now.

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Not my photo, but had to give a visual for the rainbow.

Towards the end of his set I started to become distracted by a huge cloud of smoke and/or dust that was rolling towards the crowd from behind the trees, roughly from the shuttle pick-up and drop-off area. People around me started putting their bandanas over their faces, fearing it was a dust cloud. Madi reasoned that if the shuttles were all on fire they’d probably tell us about it, right? Well turns out all that smoke, coming from a quarter mile or more away, was consummate showman Waters’ doing. At the climax of “Eclipse” when the smoke had finally drifted out over the whole crowd lasers from the top of the stage shot into the night, creating a 3D-Star Wars-Burning Man-acid trip-version of the iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover. Suddenly we were all dancing under a rainbow ceiling that stretched as far back as your eyes could see. I’ve seen lots of photos of this effect since that night but nothing captures how truly incredible it was. I wanted to freeze time and just live under those lasers for the rest of my life.

 

By the time we reached “Comfortably Numb,” Waters’ final song, you realized what a journey he’d just taken you on. His shows are masterfully assembled to deliver a powerful message. It was the perfect set to close the weekend.

—-

At the airport the next day, my voice was gone (downside of inhaling dust for 3 days straight), my body was aching and returning to the real world felt daunting. Luckily, the airport was fully overtaken by Desert Trip denizens. It seemed everyone I saw was wearing a wristband or a t-shirt. And even though it was much busier than a typical Monday at the Ontario Airport (the lone Mexican restaurant had run out of both beans and guacamole, and was running low on cheese when we left) it was a nice half-step into reality, to just overhear folks rehashing the weekend everywhere you walked.

It wasn’t Woodstock, but it wasn’t just “Oldchella” either. There was a definite feeling in that crowd of being part of something pretty legendary. Even if Goldenvoice continues to stage some iteration of this festival going forward (which seems likely) it will be hard to top this lineup. As Pete Townshend said, these artists have been playing with or around each other for the better part of 50 years (or more). They are the vanguard of the classic rock era, and witnessing them take the same stage over those three days was nothing short of magic for me. I know it’s only rock and roll, but I really, really like it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Aunt Karen permalink
    November 27, 2016 4:42 pm

    Reading this makes me both so jealous and so happy for you at the same time. Every time I read or hear about your adventures I somehow feel like I’m living vicariously through you. Still think you need to write a book! (OK, just call me grandma…I sound like her, no?)

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